first ever massacre of strangers by gunfire in U.S. history changed the rules
As the impact of the Colorado theater shootings continues to dominate newscasts, today marks the 46th anniversary of the nation’s first ever mass killing of strangers by gunfire, when Charles Whitman opened fire on passersby from the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin, killing 14 before he was killed by Austin police.
“With it being the first, we were so shocked and surprised and just dumbfounded,” says Gary Lavergne, a University of Texas staffer who has written several books on mass killers, including Whitman.
It is described as the first ever mass killing ‘of strangers’ by gunfire to differentiate it from famous crimes, like the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which people were killed for a reason. The Whitman crime was the first where somebody opened fire on complete strangers.
“Whitman was really the first to decide that he could die, and he could die in a big way, drawing attention to himself,” he said.
Lavergne says the August 1, 1966 shooting led directly to the creation of the modern police SWAT Team, and it moved city and university police departments from the days of ‘Andy of Mayberry,’ into their modern incarnations as well armed military style organizations.
“The U.T. police department at the time was a couple of retired guys with a flashlight,” he said.
Lavergne says, depressingly, the motivations of people like Charles Whitman back in 1966 are strikingly similar to the apparent motives of James Holmes in Colorado just two weeks ago.
“They just are interested in leaving a legacy behind, they want to be paid attention to,” he said. “By deciding, if just for a little while, they are the ones who are being noticed. They are the ones who are deciding who is to live and who is to die.”